My oldest child just celebrated his twenty-first birthday, and it has me thinking about the priceless benefits of adversity, affliction, and deep spiritual wrestling.
I’m thinking about them for two reasons. First, my most beneficial, faith-forging, character-developing, endurance-training, and joy-producing experiences have resulted from my most difficult, painful, fearful, dark, and doubt-inducing experiences. And second, my first real immersion into this reality happened when I was twenty-one.
What I learned was so important, so life shaping, that I long for my son — for all my children, for all who are young (and old) — to receive the same priceless benefits, even though they come through experiences parents often try to shield their children from. I want them to experience real, substantial, deep happiness, and not merely the thin, ephemeral pleasure-buzzes that masquerade as happiness. And like most treasures, such happiness is almost always discovered in the dark places.
I grew up in Middle America, spending most of my childhood in the 70s, and coming of age in the mid-80s. Which means my life was easy. Not that it was altogether easy. My working-class family had, like most families, plenty of spiritual, physical, and relational brokenness, sin, and pain. But I had parents who loved me, some really good friends, a solid church, and a decent, if deficient, public education. Above all that, God mercifully brought me to faith in Christ around age eleven. This provided me a spiritual and moral keel as I sailed the volatile waters of adolescence.
But I lived immersed in American affluence, which meant that even at the working-class level, I enjoyed an abundance of discretionary resources and time that had been unprecedented in human history until about a decade before my birth. I watched too much TV, ate too much food, and spent too much time and money on idle entertainment. Which meant I developed very little “grit.”
The summer I turned twenty-one, I felt unsettled. I sensed the softness and selfish orientation of my overall character, and I was troubled that my experiential knowledge of God was much shallower than my theoretical knowledge of God. My experiential understanding of Christian love and faith was much shallower than my creedal understanding of Christian love and faith.
“God, Break Me!”
So, my twenty-first birthday found me praying radical prayers. “God, break through! God, break me!” I really wanted God to transform my authentic, but largely untested, flabby faith into something fibrous, strong, and persevering. I wanted faith that resembled what I saw in the New Testament.
One night, after praying such things with a few friends, one told me that while I was praying, he discerned the Spirit indicating that God was going to answer my prayers, but not in the ways I expected.
This turned out to be very true. A month after my birthday, I was suddenly plunged into a season of trial and affliction on multiple levels — pain I had never known and could never have predicted. It was frightening, it was disorienting, it was depressing, and it was soul-shaking. It tested me on almost every level and pressed me beyond what I thought were my limits. And it was prolonged, lasting a number of years. It was the worst thing I had ever experienced up to that point.
And it was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. The work God did in me through this affliction accomplished all I had prayed for, and more than I had asked or thought. It forced theory into practice, abstract creed into concrete deed. It forced me to really live what I professed — to really believe what I truly believed.
Painful Discipline, Peaceful Fruit
In the middle of that dark time, I wanted out of it so badly. But afterwards, when I began to realize what it had produced in me, how much more real God had become, how much more I trusted the reliability of his word, how deep the roots of faith had pushed, how fibrous, thick, and strong the trunk and branches of faith had grown, and how it was starting to bear spiritual fruit in ways that benefited others, that season of affliction became precious beyond measure. Or, in better words,
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)
It is no overstatement when I say that this experience of hardship, adversity, depression, affliction, and spiritual oppression, along with other, even more difficult experiences since, have shaped who I am and all I do, even to today. They affect my marriage and ministry, my parenting and pastoring. They season all my writing, teaching, and counseling.
That’s why now my counsel to young adults, including (and especially) my children, is this: ask God to discipline you. Ask him! Perhaps ask sounds too polite. Plead for it! Grab hold of God, so to speak, and say, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). For your loving Father’s discipline is a blessing. It’s one of the greatest blessings you’ll receive, since God only “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).
If you want to really know God, if you want to really treasure his word, if you really want fibrous faith, if you really want freedom from addiction to empty, ephemeral pleasure-buzzes, you need a holy FOMO: a fear of missing out on the deep pleasures of God that exceeds your fear of the painful discipline it may require. I’m here to tell you it is worth it. The psalmist is telling the truth:
It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:71–72)
I would not exchange any of my discipline-afflictions for anything. In fact, I have made it a habit to keep asking God to discipline me. This isn’t because I love affliction, but because the hope in God I’ve tasted in the promises of God I’ve trusted in the darkest days are the sweetest things my soul has ever known.